When Singapore went into lockdown last year and clients at his photography agency cancelled shoots, Yusuf Abdol Hamid took a job making deliveries. The island nation where he lives lies near the equator and is hot and humid all year round, with daytime temperatures ranging between 31C and 33C. For the middle class, air-conditioning is ubiquitous, keeping the air chilled and dry in homes, offices and malls.
Working outside is another matter. “The only shelter you get when you are making deliveries is when you collect the food from a mall,” says Yusuf. “But that in itself is challenging because of the dramatic shift in temperature.” In the shopping belt, Orchard Road, especially, the malls are exceptionally cold, he continues. “You get chills, the hints of a flu, and then you come out and start sweating again.”
Year-round daytime temperatures in Singapore, which is situated close to the equator
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published this month, was a stark reminder of the extent to which human activity is changing the planet. Just a few days later, apocalyptic images of wildfires in Greece made news around the world and underscored the report’s warnings of the extreme weather resulting from rises in temperatures. Urban areas everywhere face more severe heatwaves, while coastal cities, especially in Asia, face significantly increased threats of flooding from rising sea levels and torrential rain.
Singapore is a city built in defiance of its climate. The country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, believed that air conditioning made civilisation possible in the tropics. He put it ahead of the printing press and the steam engine as the most significant innovation of the past thousand years. Indeed, Lee’s first act on becoming prime minister in 1959 was to order the installation of air conditioning in civil service offices, believing this was “key to public efficiency”.
That approach to the environment became a metaphor for Singapore’s controlled democracy. Political scientist Cherian George has described Singapore as “the air-conditioned nation”, a society with a “unique blend of comfort and central control”.
Now, along with the Gulf princedoms, the south-east Asian island is one of a handful of wealthy nations that will be on the very front line of climate change. The safe and affluent lifestyle of Singaporeans has been a role model for many across the developing world. The way the country confronts climate change may offer a template for Asia’s expanding megacities.
My father grew up in Singapore, and we travelled there regularly throughout my childhood. In 2015, I returned with my wife and young family as the FT’s correspondent. It felt hotter than I recalled, partly because I was now out of the house at some of the hottest times of day, rather than flopped on a relative’s sofa, and partly because it is in fact getting warmer.
Singapore is now heating at approximately 0.25 degrees a decade, about double the trend in global temperatures since the 1950s, according to government scientists. The rapid rise is a combination of global warming and the heat island effect, by which human activity and the trapping of heat by roads and buildings make cities hotter than the surrounding countryside. At night, when concrete buildings radiate the solar heat absorbed during the day, the outside air in highly developed areas can be up to seven degrees hotter than in Singapore’s green spaces.
I learnt to go jogging only in the cool of early morning, slipping out of our apartment in the half-hour before sunrise and keeping to shaded paths. At work, I copied the Singaporean male office uniform of a crisp white shirt, as walking from the FT’s office to meet a contact in mid-afternoon would leave dark sweat patches on any other colour.
While most spaces where adults gather indoors are kept chilled in Singapore, schools traditionally have not been climate-controlled, possibly because of the prohibitive cost. At my children’s school, classroom windows were open to the breeze, and lunch was served in an open-sided thatched shelter.
Singapore has gone through one of the fastest urban transformations in history. In 1960, more than two-thirds of its estimated 1.89m people were squatters or slum dwellers. By 1985, there were no squatters and all of the slums had been cleared.
The pace of change pulled traditional communities apart and cut Singaporeans off from a style of living that was closer to the land. In squatter colonies known as kampongs, families supplemented work in factories or warehouses by growing vegetables and rearing pigs and chickens. There were makeshift backyard workshops crowded in alongside dwellings. Illumination at night came from kerosene lamps and water was fetched from standpipes or wells.
“We never locked our doors,” recalls Tan Cheng Earn, who grew up on a kampong in the 1960s. “There was no need to, because everyone knew everyone. There were coconut trees all around and we raised chickens, ducks and pigs, and grew vegetables and fruit trees like guava and jackfruit.”
Shophouses, so-called because they combined a shop opening on to the pavement with family accommodation at the rear, were a style of architecture designed for a tropical climate, with shady verandas and courtyards that improved ventilation and cooled the entire building. In the city centre, many of these were torn down to make way for offices and hotels.
The changes propelled Singapore’s economic transformation from colonial port to manufacturing hub and global financial centre. As well as raising the productivity of office workers, air conditioning mitigates the health effects of heat and reduces the risk of insect-borne diseases. Cooling systems that reduce humidity as well as heat are also essential for the smooth functioning of office technology: moist air warps paper, for instance, jamming printers.
But climate control also reshaped the city’s architecture, making it a less human place. Instead of arranging rooms around a courtyard, air conditioning encouraged the building of tightly stacked flats and offices. By blasting exhaust air out of buildings, it intensifies the heat on the streets, driving people to seek shelter indoors. This disfigures the public face of the city, too. Back alleys in Singapore are frequently lined with external condenser units, rows of bulky grey or white boxes fixed to the outside walls of buildings.
Richard Hassell, co-founder of WOHA, an architectural practice in Singapore, describes the city as a “canary in the coalmine”, as humanity brushes up against the safe operating limits of the planet. “It has come up against all kinds of limits much earlier than other places,” he says. “So it is a laboratory for what’s happening elsewhere in the world.”
Land is Singapore’s most obvious constraint. Indonesia plans to construct a new capital to replace Jakarta, a congested city built on a swamp, while Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur sprawls into the surrounding countryside. For Singapore, the options are limited to building upwards, excavating downwards or reclaiming land from the sea — an increasingly expensive undertaking.
But it is climate — and the need to grapple with the consequences of climate change — that has become the central challenge for Singapore’s urban planners. In 2019, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is Lee Kuan Yew’s son, warned his fellow citizens that the country was already feeling the impact of this shift. “Our weather is palpably hotter,” he said. “Rainstorms are heavier. And this will very likely worsen over the next few decades, within the lifetimes of many of us.”
Singapore’s love affair with air conditioning is both necessary to make the climate bearable and risks fuelling further climate change. Nearly 80 per cent of Singaporean households had an air-conditioning unit as of 2018, a steady increase from 75 per cent in 2008, according to official data. A higher share of US and Japanese homes have air conditioning — about 90 per cent in each — but given their climate, Singaporeans are more likely to use their cooling systems all year round.
Just 8 per cent of Indian households have air conditioning. The Indian government predicts this figure will rise to 21 per cent over the next six years. Cooling currently accounts for a tenth of global electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which predicts that the use of air conditioning and the accompanying energy demand will soar in the coming decades.
“It is hard to say to families at the cusp of an increase in income that they should not have access to a service that is tied to the idea of development,” says Radhika Khosla, associate professor at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. “India and Indonesia are on track for very high penetration of air conditioners in the next decade,” she adds, referring to an IEA projection that the equivalent of 10 new air conditioning systems will be sold globally, every second, for the next 30 years.
Acquiring cooling technology is a matter of survival, not just status. “There’s a real link between access to cooling and inequality — inequality in terms of income and in terms of professions,” Khosla says. “If your job requires you to be outdoors, the effect of heat-related mortality and morbidity is much higher.”
Buildings such as the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore, completed in 2019, offer a template for a new style that combines Asia’s past and future. A large overhanging roof provides shade, just like the verandas that gave shelter from the sun in traditional tropical architecture, while harvesting energy through photovoltaic panels on top. Air is cooled but then delivered to rooms at a warmer temperature and at a greater humidity than it would be in a conventional air-conditioning system. Windows can be opened to let in the breeze, and ceiling fans stir the air.
South Beach, a complex of offices and shops in central Singapore, is one of several modern developments whose design accommodates the tropical climate.
Heading to a meeting with executives of social media company Facebook on an upper floor of an office tower at the complex, I noticed the welcome shade cast by the giant steel and aluminium canopy around the building, allowing me a moment to cool down before going inside.
This change in building design needs to fit into a broader reshaping of the city, including a shift towards less consumption and more recycling. “For Singapore to be self-sufficient it is not enough that buildings are performing better — they need to be operating as components of a self-sufficient city,” says Hassell. “Where are we going to produce energy, produce food?”
Every new building in a central location is now required to replace greenery at a “100 per cent rate”, that is, the developer must use a combination of grounds, terraces and other green features to provide the same amount of plant life as if there was no building on the site. “We are blessed in the tropics — things grow fast,” says Khoo Teng Chye, executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, a think-tank in Singapore. “We have to learn to exploit this to make the city softer and more liveable. We have to learn to live with less air conditioning, to design buildings that take advantage of the wind. That’s the next big area that we have to work on if we want to be sustainable.”
The challenge is being tackled in a “multi-pronged” way, Khoo adds. Many flats now have solar panels on their rooftops. “We’re using computational fluid dynamics to place buildings in new towns where they catch the wind, cooling the temperature.”
The shift to a more sustainable style of architecture is likely to be accelerated by the impact of Covid-19. The outbreak of contagion does not appear to have damaged confidence in high-density housing (most people in Singapore live in apartment blocks), but is expected to encourage more outdoor living, which appears to have a lower risk of transmission compared with being in close proximity indoors.
At Kampung Admiralty, a complex that combines housing for the elderly and a medical centre, the main public space has a lofty ceiling and is open to the elements on three sides, creating a covered square with natural ventilation.
Since opening in 2012, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s waterfront nature park built on land reclaimed from the sea, has become a statement of the city’s ambitions for urban design. The gardens are a 101-hectare expanse of greenery at the centre of Singapore open to the public that showcase plants from the environments most likely to be affected by climate change and act as a sponge, absorbing and slowly releasing rainwater.
Their best-known attraction, the “Supertrees”, are vertical sculptures up to 50 metres high and festooned with orchids, ferns and other climbing plants. The core of each tree is concrete wrapped in steel and overlaid with a living skin of vegetation. At the top, a funnel-shaped array of steel branches reach into the sky. Singapore, the gardens seem meant to say, is scientific and rational, a city in which the human will has triumphed over wild nature. Yet it is also a city in which the human connection with plant life and the natural world is valued.
In the Bishan neighbourhood, a canal that once ran straight along the edge of a strip of parkland has been reshaped to twist through the middle of it. Fish thrive in the new waterway and other aquatic wildlife has been spotted in the park, from dragonflies to otters.
Singapore’s recent emphasis on sustainability is drawing interest from other Asian nations. Grant Associates, the Singaporean landscape architectural practice that planned Gardens by the Bay, is designing a “Friendship Park” in the Chinese coastal municipality of Tianjin, inspired by the Singapore development.
The risk of extreme rainfall and rising sea levels is being factored into designs. Terminal 5 at Singapore’s Changi airport, scheduled for completion in the 2030s, will be built 5.5 metres above mean sea level, as a precaution against the melting of polar ice.
A more extreme climate will emphasise the need for resilient architecture. At SkyVille @ Dawson, a Singaporean public housing development completed in 2015, all the corridors are lit by daylight and naturally ventilated. “Buildings that are basic and resilient, where you can walk downstairs if something happens to the lift, are going to become important to people’s peace of mind,” says Hassell (WOHA designed the development).
Surges in temperature will pose a challenge to the capability of air conditioning to keep buildings cool. “Singapore is the model of a city that has adopted air conditioning, and one can’t be trivial about the effect this has had on its economy,” says Adam Rysanek, an environmental systems professor at the University of British Columbia, who conducted a successful trial in Singapore of an alternative, lower-energy cooling technology, using panels filled with chilled water to absorb body heat, rather than cooling the air. “But if India and Indonesia choose that type of air conditioning, it will exacerbate climate change. It’s a global imperative to find alternatives.”
Architects are experimenting with luxury homes that are naturally ventilated, selling the notion of returning to a “healthier” past. One model from the past is the “black-and-white” house, the sought-after colonial-era homes famous for their whitewashed exteriors. “There is a view that the future is all about behaviour change,” explains Rysanek. “We have seen in the past year that mass behaviour change did not change energy use. People want to feel comfortable. Without giving people a sense of luxury we won’t break through.”
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The Singapore approach is, in essence, one of optimism that technological solutions can mitigate the worst consequences of the coming crisis. This runs counter to the broadly pessimistic view among many experts that a combination of intense heat and rising sea levels will shrink the habitable portion of the planet. Some scientists advocate a strategic retreat from shorelines that cannot be defended and research suggests cities in the Middle East may become inhospitably hot within a few decades. That is not an option for Singapore. It must adapt to survive.
This is an edited extract from “Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia”, published by Little, Brown on September 2. Jeevan Vasagar is a former FT Singapore correspondent
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